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My family’s experience reporting a San Diego Sheriff’s deputy who bullied us and lied about it underscores why police officers’ versions of events shouldn’t be treated as sacrosanct.
Minneapolis police claimed George Floyd “physically resisted officers” until a video showed officer Derek Chauvin crushing out his life as he lay handcuffed and face down on the pavement. The Waycross, Georgia, district attorney called the killing of unarmed Ahmaud Arbery “justifiable homicide” until a video showed Arbery gunned down by vigilantes. Police in Buffalo, New York, reported 75-year-old Martin Gugino “tripped and fell” until a video showed officers shoving him backward to the pavement and leaving him bleeding with a fractured skull. Without the videos, these offenders would have been free to offend again.
Denying justice to victims of police brutality is an inescapable outcome when the word of a law enforcement officer is categorically deemed more credible than that of a victim. This type of injustice exists everywhere, even in America’s Finest City.
As an example, my 74-year-old wife received a speeding ticket several years ago during our visit to San Diego County. The Sheriff’s deputy ordered her to sign a ticket containing a promise to appear in court several months later.
“We live in Georgia,” she explained. “Isn’t there a way to pay the fine by mail?”
The officer responded brusquely, “I’m not going to answer that question until you sign the ticket.”
Anxious about signing the promise she wouldn’t keep, she repeated her question. The officer was cold and unyielding. “I’m not going to answer that question until you sign.” Then with my wife almost in tears, he threatened her with jail if she refused to sign.
Only after she signed did the officer condescend to explain she could pay the fine by mail – an explanation he could have offered at the outset.
We filed a complaint with the Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board. Unless problems are identified and acknowledged, they cannot be corrected. We feared that bullying behavior might continue and escalate into more serious abuse.
Several weeks later, we received a letter from Patrick A. Hunter of CLERB stating that the deputy had told my wife from the beginning she could pay by mail. In effect, the deputy claimed my wife and I had lied. Hunter concluded his letter stating that the evidence showed the officer’s conduct to be “lawful, justified and proper.”
What evidence? Neither my wife as victim, nor I as eyewitness, was ever contacted. Which was more likely – that the deputy lied, or two elderly physicians visiting San Diego concocted a story about a bullying law enforcement officer, and went to the trouble to file a complaint against him?
The lie and the automatic pass given by the review board raised disturbing questions. Who else does this officer bully? Does he lie in court? Plant evidence?
If authorities only believe those wearing a badge, how can they identify problem officers?
We filed an appeal with copies to several government officials, including then-County Supervisor Dave Roberts, County Sheriff William Gore and then-Solana Beach Mayor David Ott. Only Gore’s office responded and sent a form for filing a complaint. I gave up. San Diego officials were apparently uninterested in bullying behavior, lies and white-washed reports or too intimidated by police unions to investigate.
I support the need for law enforcement. My grandfather was a police chief in Tennessee. My father was a judge. A police officer was a person who would help a 74-year-old woman cross the street, not bully her and lie about it. Rogue officers destroy respect, erode community trust and generate resentment that may one day erupt in violence. Police unions that protect rogue officers undermine and ultimately threaten the safety of conscientious officers and the public.
Transparency and accountability are essential elements of reform. A review board must not accept an officer’s version of events simply because the officer wears a badge. Nevertheless, there will be “he said/she said” complaints where an accurate determination of events is impossible. These complaints should not result in automatic exoneration; the report should be filed as “Insufficient data to make a determination.” Officers who accumulate such complaints should be watched closely, re-trained or encouraged to seek other employment. Sixteen misconduct complaints had been previously filed against Derek Chauvin, the officer who crushed the life out of George Floyd.
The November ballot will contain a measure to establish a police review commission with subpoena power and the independence to review complaints against officers in the San Diego Police Department. This measure provides a method to evaluate credibility, restore trust and better serve the police and the community.
Andrew Taylor is a professor of radiology and imaging sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.